Representing Jihad: The Appearing and Disappearing Radical

Representing Jihad: The Appearing and Disappearing Radical

by Jacqueline O'Rourke


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Representing Jihad: The Appearing and Disappearing Radical by Jacqueline O'Rourke

The jihad has been at the centre of the West's securitization discourse for more than a decade. Theorists frequently use the jihadist as a discursive tool to further their neoliberal, military and market agendas, perpetuating massive gaps of understanding between the West, Muslims and jihadists themselves. They are helped by Muslim interlocutors, who all too often play the role of the 'good' Muslim explaining the motifs of the 'bad'.

Representing Jihad skulfully critiques the debate around the jihadist, arguing that Muslim theory and fiction have been commodified to cater to the needs of Western ideology. Examining the work of theorists such as Edward Said and Slavoj Zizek, novelists such as Don DeLillo and Orhan Pamuk, and jihadists such as Mohammed Siddique Khan and Osama bin Laden, O'Rourke explores some of the critical fault lines in postcolonial theory and literary analysis.

Timely and comprehensive, this book argues that the temptation to appropriate the figure of the jihadist offers fertile ground for a discussion about the limits of current theory.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781780322629
Publisher: Zed Books
Publication date: 09/04/2012
Pages: 264
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Jaqueline O'Rourke has worked as a consultant in communications and research in Doha Qatar, setting up various NGOs and contributing to multiple academic projects and institutions. She has taught at several universities in Canada and the Middle East and regularly writes as a journalist on various aspects of Islam and the Arab revolution.

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Representing Jihad

The Appearing and Disappearing Radical

By Jacqueline O'Rourke

Zed Books Ltd

Copyright © 2012 Jacqueline O'Rourke
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78032-265-0


The vanishing jihadist: bin Laden and the Arab revolutions

The assassinations of Osama bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaki, the twists and turns in the Arab revolutions, rebranded as the Arab 'Awakening', and the bipolar positioning of these two struggles, serve as a useful starting point from which to explore the fragility of the binary construction of 'good' and 'bad' Muslims, particularly since 9/11 and the popularization of the rhetoric of the 'war on terror'. Over the last decade, but not limited to this time, Muslims, the majority population in the Middle East and North Africa, now being re-formed through the Arab 'Awakening', have been categorized according to both their position on violence as a tool for revolutionary change and their compliance with the mantra of neoliberal social and economic progress. And, in this sense, bin Laden had always been an easy target that fitted the Orientalist stereotype of the crazed medieval Islamist disconnected from the fine nuances of modernity and progress. Good Muslims are expected to disassociate themselves from bin Laden's violent jihad and struggle to implement reforms in their societies according to the narrative that liberalization of the region's economies will finally allow the Muslim world to catch up with Western modernity. The category of bad Muslims, which has become rather heavily populated, includes, but is not limited to, all those who argue that a rupture from Western imperialist interests is necessary for progress and justice, and that this rupture necessitates violence to effect change, whether epistemic or actual. As I have discussed in the Introduction, the sliding measure of 'badness' has been elastic enough to include jihadists, Islamists and, on occasion, nationalists and leftists, as unsympathetic to freedom and universal concepts of liberalization. The Islamophobic trope has been an essential mechanism in culturizing this polarization between 'good' Muslims (who can establish governments whose interests collaborate with those of the United States, the European Union, the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and, of course, Israel) and 'bad' Muslims (who might reject economic imperialism and its accompanying homogenizing cultural and social programmes). Throughout this book I show evidence of how 'good' Muslims are familiarized as 'people like us' and 'bad' Muslims are exoticized and demonized as enemies of civilization.

Though various anti-Orientalists discussed in this book, such as John Esposito, Faisal Devji and Olivier Roy, have played a vital role in explaining bin Laden's version of jihad in socio-political, ethical and secular terms, it can be argued that the environment for hearing bin Laden has always been particularly static-prone. It is likely to remain as such while the CIA pores over bin Laden's diaries and videos, collections of pornography and marijuana plants, leaking information which will further demonize him and his associates. This reinvention of bin Laden coincides with assertions that his methodology of radical violence has been shown to be ineffective by the 'peaceful' protests of Twittering youth 'awakened' to a new pan-Arab struggle, which hopefully will be compliant with American and European interests.

Recent responses to bin Laden's death, from liberals to leftists, have unanimously claimed that he is now obsolete, and had been for some time. Gilles Kepel, for example, confidently declared in aNew York Times op-ed that bin Laden was 'already dead' before his actual assassination since his message had already been replaced by secular uprisings (Kepel 2011). After Noam Chomsky's controversial article in Guernica of 6 May 2011, which highlighted the hypocritical American stance in assassinating bin Laden, Chomsky was compelled to extrapolate in a longer piece on Znet (20 May 2011) in which he noted that bin Laden's death meant less for the Arab world than the West since bin Laden 'had long been a fading presence, and in the past few months was eclipsed by the Arab Spring' (Chomsky 2011b). Likewise, earlier on Znet (6 May 2011) Tom Engelhardt argued that the Arab world had 'largely left bin Laden in the dust even before he took that bullet to the head', again because he had been replaced by 'the massive, ongoing, largely nonviolent protests that have shaken the region and its autocrats to their roots' (Engelhardt 2011). Mainstream Western media have been so keen to discern what Arabs think of bin Laden that the Guardian, the Irish Times, NPR and CNN all ran extensive pieces documenting Arab reactions to bin Laden's death, issuing a collective sigh of relief that the Arab 'Awakening' will likely serve as a vent for the frustrations of Muslims who might otherwise turn to radicalism.

Faisal Devji's July 2011 policy paper for the Conflicts Forum provides a useful point of entry to elaborate on key points that are discussed in detail throughout this book: first, that the jihad has become more relevant to Western societies, which perpetually define themselves in relation to an exotic Other, as evidenced in the wide range of appropriations discussed in this book in fiction, cultural theory and criticism; and second, that the arguments, or content, of bin Laden's jihad did not begin or end with bin Laden but are part of an ongoing anti-imperialist narrative and global ethical movement, which, I argue, is evident in the discourse of the Arab uprising. It is the striking continuity of the narrative, rather than its disruption, that is often overlooked by commentators.

To begin with, Devji argues that

It is only the US public that continues to be mesmerised by Osama and his gang, which is appropriate enough given that they had always been a factor of America's domestic politics. So the political use to which President Obama put Bin Laden's killing was nothing more than a fulfilment of his predecessor's strategy, which consisted of using fears about security to consolidate his power at the national level. (Devji 2011: 2)

I would add that, particularly over the past decade, Western fascination with the figure of the jihadist has been reflective of a culture of victimology and fear that has become foundational to the logic required for imperialist, Euro- American capitalist expansion. In this regard, the exotic figure of bin Laden and his affiliates, and sometimes an undefined group of Islamists, is the mechanism which has nurtured this culture of fear. The repetitive replaying of footage of an aged bin Laden viewing himself on video, combined with the footage of President Obama and his team watching bin Laden being illegally assassinated, the morbid celebrations over the death of bin Laden, and the grotesque Internet postings of fake corpse photos, reveal a perverse element of the 'war on terror' which verges on the necrophilic and pornographic. Devji notes the curious American specificity of this viewing:

Crucial about this reaction, after all, has been the fact that people around the world seemed interested in the event primarily because of the extraordinarily pugnacious public response it generated in the US, and not for any reason of their own. Thus even in countries like Britain and Spain, which not so long ago had themselves been the victims of Al-Qaeda's militancy, there was little if any public demonstration of satisfaction at Bin Laden's death, though it continued to be the subject of massive media coverage precisely as an element in American politics. (Devji 2011: 1)

In this sense, the American public have taken the position of voyeur to jihad in a 'closed loop of perversion' which enacts 'not the desire to see and control so much as the drive to make oneself' (Zizek 1999: 248, 175). In short the 'pervert' is carved out of the market system for a mass-customized consumer whose perverse desires are an expression of the order's inherent transgression. As Zizek argues, 'the deepest identification which holds a community together is not so much identification with the Law that regulates its normal everyday circuit as identification with the specific form of transgression of the Law, of its suspension' (1992: 225). The celebration of bin Laden's illegal assassination and the killing by proxy of American citizen Anwar al-Awlaki demonstrate this perverse celebration of the suspension of the law. Yet the gruesome lure of bin Laden's demise is more than the utterance of a Wild West rhetoric, 'we got him', by President Obama, but the expression of a diabolical tendency in the American public to see itself, when convenient as a leader of the 'international community' frequently called in to persecute violators of law, and, when convenient, as an outlaw – as outside the law – as evidenced in the bin Laden and al-Awlaki assassinations. The amnesic public celebrates the violence inherent in its transgressions, while simultaneously and hypocritically conceiving of its Empire as a peaceful and benevolent force spreading prosperity and liberalism – economic and hegemonic – across the globe.

It is the latter self-conception that America presents of itself in the narrative of 'the war on terror', particularly evident in its response to the Arab 'Awakening'. One major trend of Western media and Arab protestors is to package the revolutionaries and activists as peaceful in counterpoint to the violence of bin Laden and his radicals. Bin Laden had asserted that violence, including the right to kill oneself in killing the enemy, was an appropriate response to oppression and vowed to use violent means to rid the Muslim world of both its 'near enemy', its autocratic rulers, and its 'far enemy', the imperialist powers. To achieve these ends he approved of spectacular attacks on symbolic targets on Western soil, and attacks on oilfields and various symbols of imperial presence inside predominantly Muslim countries. To the contrary, the Arab revolution has been spun as a peaceful protest, with Tahrir Square, particularly, as an Arab version of Woodstock. Western support for the 2011 Arab revolutions has been tenuously and grudgingly granted as long as the protesters are 'peaceful'. At the same time the West has virtually ignored the symbolic significance of the violent catalyst of these revolutions, the act of testimony by Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian street vendor who set himself on fire on 17 December 2010, now hailed as a shahid throughout the Muslim world. Mohammed Ali Atassi has observed:

Did not Mohamed Bouazizi commit what – according to traditional Islamic law – is considered the most venal of all sins when he burned himself to inject life back into the veins of the Arab peoples after the tyrants had bled them almost dry? And yet the violation by Bouazizi of such a fundamental principle of traditional Islam was not enough to prevent millions of people from sympathizing with him and turning him into an icon and symbol of the current Arab revolution. (Atassi 2011: 34)

Likewise, did not bin Laden's followers commit similar acts of shahid, despite condemnation from numerous Islamic scholars questioning the Islamicity of their actions, and were not they too, much to the distress of pacifist observers, hailed as icons to many across the Muslim world? While both adopted heterodox stances, bin Laden's was considered shameful since he advocated killing others along with the self, while Mohamed Bouazizi killed only himself, making him a hero more acceptable to Western standards of martyrdom. Yet Bouazizi's heterodox act did not prevent him being hailed as a shahid, and referred to as such throughout the Muslim world in a language eerily similar to bin Laden's. Even President Obama must have noticed the striking methodological similarity, since he spoke at length to reframe it as difference in an extended commentary on Bouazizi and bin Laden in his 19 May 2011 speech on the Arab uprisings, 'Moment of Opportunity'. On bin Laden, he claims

Bin Laden was no martyr. He was a mass murderer who offered a message of hate – an insistence that Muslims had to take up arms against the West, and that violence against men, women and children was the only path to change. He rejected democracy and individual rights for Muslims in favor of violent extremism; his agenda focused on what he could destroy – not what he could build.

Bin Laden and his murderous vision won some adherents. But even before his death, al Qaeda was losing its struggle for relevance, as the overwhelming majority of people saw that the slaughter of innocents did not answer their cries for a better life. By the time we found bin Laden, al Qaeda's agenda had come to be seen by the vast majority of the region as a dead end, and the people of the Middle East and North Africa had taken their future into their own hands. (Obama 2011a)

After emptying bin Laden of intention, and setting him up as the perfect exoticized authoritarian jihadist, Obama eulogizes the saintly Bouazizi:

That story of self-determination began six months ago in Tunisia. On December 17th, a young vendor named Mohammed Bouazizi was devastated when a police officer confiscated his cart. This was not unique. It's the same kind of humiliation that takes place every day in many parts of the world – the relentless tyranny of governments that deny their citizens dignity. Only this time, something different happened. After local officials refused to hear his complaints, this young man, who had never been particularly active in politics, went to the headquarters of the provincial government, doused himself in fuel, and lit himself on fire.

There are times in the course of history when the actions of ordinary citizens spark movements for change because they speak to a longing for freedom that has been building up for years. In America, think of the defiance of those patriots in Boston who refused to pay taxes to a King, or the dignity of Rosa Parks as she sat courageously in her seat. So it was in Tunisia, as that vendor's act of desperation tapped into the frustration felt throughout the country. Hundreds of protesters took to the streets, then thousands. And in the face of batons and sometimes bullets, they refused to go home – day after day, week after week – until a dictator of more than two decades finally left power. (Obama 2011a)

It is quite remarkable how Obama appropriates Bouazizi by comparing him to American revolutionaries and civil rights activists. In this sense, he clearly incorporates the Arab revolt into anAmerican narrative on the power of the individual in igniting change, and inaugurates the Arab protesters into the American tale of individualism, prosperity and the pursuit of happiness through the politics and economics of neoliberalism. By exoticizing bin Laden and familiarizing the good Muslims of the Arab revolts, Obama uses a practised postcolonial trope. This is explored in detail in the chapters that follow.

Another point worthy of consideration is that Obama's accomplices and new-found allies in the dense political change sweeping the region, who may not measure up to the familiar and 'non-violent' Bouazizi, are conveniently ignored. For example, when he briefly mentions American involvement in Libya, he speaks of 'a legitimate and credible Interim Council', failing to mention that the chairman, Mustapha Abdul Jalil, Gaddafi's ex-justice minister, has been criticized by Amnesty International for human rights violations, and Abd al-Hakim Belhaj, the commander of Tripoli's Military Council, who spearheaded the attack on Muammar al-Gaddafi's compound at Bab al-Aziziya, was a former commander of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), an organization with historical links to al-Qaeda. As Douglas Kellner has noted, 'media spectacles are subject to dialectical reversal as positive images give way to negative ones' (2005: 78). In this case, Obama's spectacle is operating in reverse as the negative transforms into the positive and his new, familiarized allies are emptied of their radical pasts. In fact, the 'revolutionaries' or 'rebels' in Libya freely speak of their armed and violent struggle as jihad, and Abdul Jalil has stated that he wants a civil state in Lybia with sharia as its major source of legislation.


Excerpted from Representing Jihad by Jacqueline O'Rourke. Copyright © 2012 Jacqueline O'Rourke. Excerpted by permission of Zed Books Ltd.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgements viii

Glossary ix

Introduction: Homo islamicus: beyond 'good' and 'bad' 1

1 The vanishing jihadist: bin Laden and the Arab revolutions 21

2 Constructing the 'bad' Muslim: jihad, Orientalism and the militarization of Muslim lands 48

3 Contextualizing 'bad' Muslims: jihad, globalization and anti-Orientalism 78

4 Ree(a)l jihadists: the media-tion of intentions 107

5 Recovering invisible traces: jihad and postcolonialism 141

6 Humanism and Islam: jihad and postsecularism 184

Conclusion: Universalization of universes of resistance 216

Notes 223

References 229

Index 245

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